One Day. Ten T-Shirts.
1. NOFX Are for Kids* "This is the coolest concert ever," a bleached-blond kid in a Trix-bunny NOFX T-shirt exclaims, as we're herded into a wire mesh passageway leading toward the big punk rock show on Randalls Island. The crowd is very, very young. I was born in the '70s, and I feel like calling people "sonny."
2. Society Can't Accept MeS.C.A.M. For a subculture with a convulsive fear of labels, Punk Rock Youth 1998 is amazingly open to product placement. It's not just that sponsor logos are everywhere in sight, from the stages to the skaters' half-pipe to the displaysthat's not a novelty. Or that there are dozens of booths selling duds and CDs plus "free shit" from every band and label; they're entitled, and the audience is stocking up big-time. It's the T-shirts. Everybody presentbut everybodyis a walking billboard for something: bands, beverages, sometimes a particular record label or clothing brand as a consumer lifestyle, very often alienation from consumer lifestyles as a consumer lifestyle. There is a booth selling Question Authority?brand hempwear.
3. Let's Breed Fundamentally similar, the smarter young Warped bands mostly distinguish themselves through genre hybrids: punk-swing, punk-mariachi, punk-ragtime. Kickiest of the hyphenated crew are Voodoo Glow Skulls, who do nifty Latin horn arrangements over the fastest two-step this side of black metal. Mad Caddies, uneven but pleasingly weird, try for punk-Dixieland via Michigan J. Frog and the cantina scene from Star Wars; Cherry Poppin' Daddies' watery zoot suit moves inspire about two minutes' worth of swing dancing at the back of the crowd before everyone returns to doing the Brownian motion; Reverend Horton Heat executes a piping-hot little punk?Dick Dale opener, then sinks into his familiar punk-rockabilly shtick. There are a few ringers, though. The Amazing Royal Crowns play straight-up rockabilly so fast and dense it generates what they themselves call "real dancing," meaning not moshing. And the more-than?two-tone Ozomatli seem to have wandered in from a totally different bill, with their marvelous fat P-Funky low end decorated by scratching and whatever other multiculti-isms fit; they'll be playing the much more comfortable Central Park SummerStage soon.
The Vans Warped Tour 1998
4. Jah Rules Lucky thing checkerboard patterns make good tattoos. The hyphenated musics of choice at Warped are reggae and ska, and most of the bands with the technical competence to play the off-beat try it at some point. Only a couple of full-time bluebeat groups are on the bill, though. Hepcat are almost totally straight ska, reasonably stylish and lacking in noteworthy songs. Both style and songs used to be hallmarks of the Specials, who play as the sun is going down and the wagon train of kids is rolling back through the dust toward the exit. But the re-formed lineup lacks Terry Hall and Jerry Dammers, and therefore also the frightened sadness that made them deeper than a solid band of Skatalites fans.
5. Can't Sleep . . . Clowns Will Eat Me Vaudeville always works. The band with the greatest number of leaps per kid unit seems to be the Aquabats, an army of ska-punk Devo devotees with matching ludicrous outfits and masks, a guitar that spits out fireworks, and a stage act involving a kung fu showdown with an evil clown.
6. Gabba Gabba Hey With scarcely a radio hit between them, few of the Warped bands can make ears perk up with their own signature songs. So they turn to other people's. The nadir of this trend is 22 Jacks' dumbass punkification of "Message in a Bottle"Leatherface beat you to it by six years, guysbut it's redeemed by Voodoo Glow Skulls barreling through the Coasters' "Charlie Brown." Vroom! Even better is Punk Rock Karaoke, in which members of Bad Religion and NOFX crank through "Minor Threat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Oh Bondage Up Yours!," and so on, while volunteers warble to an audience of their peers. It kind of rips the aura off "Los Angeles" when the singers can't stop giggling. An actual pit breaks out right away.
7. Your Mom "I know you're all thinking, 'Why's there a chick onstage?' " Monique from the featherweight swing-punk band Save Ferris declares. "This ain't the fucking Lilith Fair, yo." She's right. Of the 35 bands playing the show, three, give or take, involve a woman on the microphone (and that's counting Punk Rock Karaoke, where Kitty from the Kowalskis does a memorable "Uncontrollable Urge"); if there's a woman playing an instrument at any point, I don't see her. Disconcerting, especially given that the audience is about half and half.
8. A Clockwork Orange The senior nonhyphenated punk rock bands start hitting the main stage midafternoon, switching on and clamping off song after song, bam bam bam. For the ones who've been around long enough, going through the motions and delivering the goods are exactly the same thing. NOFX have developed an increasingly keen sense of their own absurdity ("Has our music been castrated? Yes. . . . The song's the same but the desperation's gone," goes one on their latest), though chord number five is still out of the question. Bad Religion are as wordy and burly as ever; they tried "artistic growth" 15 years ago at a party, then decided it was a bad idea. And All's Bill Stevenson is so natural a punk rock drummer I want to weep and mosh at once, but he's starting to write like a scary old guy: "I'm sorry I corrupted youtook away your youth/I'm sorry you remember it that way/I remember it was true love/And you can never take that away from me." Eee.
9. Yoo-Hoo The Warped tour doesn't announce its playing order until the day of the show; every band gets a half-hour set, and two of the four stages are always in use. That's nicely egalitarian, but it also makes the bands a little more anonymous than they would be otherwise, and more anonymity they don't need. Just as an experiment, I tap somebody on the shoulder during nearly every set and ask, "Who's playing?" Aside from Bad Religion, NOFX, and the Specials, the answer is either "I don't know" or "I don't know, but they're pretty good."
10. 0 My own brand-identity signifier is just the big blue Germs zero on a black T, though, with the dust so fierce that people wet patches of their T-shirts to breathe through, the day turns it bluish tan on dark tan, like a faded relic. Warped is a county fair, and a good one; the point is not, as with other big tours, the individual performers, it's the mass of them. The tour's specialty is music that was born out of desperate repudiation, frozen in midlunge, and repurposed as the soundtrack to reflexive dissatisfaction. Genre trumps identity, and by god it's fun to jump around to. On the bus back from Randalls Island, there are a dozen kids in my earshot, horsing around, still having a blast. They don't say a word about any of the bands they've just seen.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.